Whether you're hunting or just watching for wildlife, elk are a magnificent sight. But the large animals can be elusive, so the state Game, Fish and Parks Department is taking to the air over the Black Hills to see how many elk are out there and where they're living.
In a field just off of Minnekahta Junction in the Southern Black Hills, two helicopters prepare for a sight-seeing mission of sorts. It's part of an effort by the Game, Fish and Parks Department to get a more accurate picture of the elk population in the Black Hills.
"The number is extremely important to us. It gives us a starting number to work with in our models, we're able to test different harvest strategies, and determine what that may or may not do the elk population," G, F, & P Regional Wildlife Manager John Kanta said.
It's a task that's made easier with the help of contracted helicopters.
"It would be really hard to identify these groups from just the ground. Getting up in the air gives us that bird's eye perspective," G, F, & P Research Biologist Luke Meduna said.
Last week, crews could hardly believe their eyes when they saw this massive herd of elk not far from Custer.
"They were in the Jasper burn area, and that's actually the largest group of elk that we've ever encountered; over 1,000 elk," Kanta said.
That's nearly one-quarter of the entire elk population officials estimated for the entire Black Hills last year. But in spite of the encouraging find, Kanta says the results of this year's survey are far from final.
"While things looked very good there in that area, known as Hunting Unit Two, I could take you over to Hunting Unit Nine in the eastern part of the Black Hills and it's pretty much void of elk," Kanta said.
That was the case Wednesday, when no elk were spotted in the areas covered by the crew. But whether it's hit or miss, those participating in the count agree it's important work.
"Well hopefully it will help us manage our elk population better, it'll give us a better picture of how many elk are out on the landscape out here," Meduna said.
When the survey is complete it will have covered the entire Black Hills. To put that into perspective, that's nearly five-thousand square miles.